Emory Report

 September 29, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 6

Law course examines issues surrounding capital punishment

In response to national and statewide calls for reform, Emory Law School has established a course and yearlong internship on capital punishment that will give students a close-up look at the effects of race, poverty and disadvantage on the ability to receive a fair trial. Taught by nationally known attorney Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights who has represented capital cases since 1979, the course also features an internship program for selected students.

Bright, who taught the same course or a similar version in the Northeast, said the Emory students' proximity to the Southern Center, where several will be working as interns, will be a distinct advantage for them. Six of the course's 35 students will work there or at the Multi-County Defender's Office and the Georgia Resource Center.

Emory began planning the capital punishment course last winter in the wake of growing concern in the legal community, said Law School Dean Howard Hunter. At a meeting last fall with the state's law school deans, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Benham urged the schools to educate students about the ongoing problems of inadequate legal representation, especially in capital cases. In February, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on capital punishment, declaring that the death penalty has become "a haphazard maze of unfair practices."

Hunter also had discussions with Harry Barnes, director of The Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program and chair of its Human Rights Committee, who expressed former first lady Rosalynn Carter's concern about fairness in the application of capital punishment, particularly regarding individuals with mental illness. The Carter Center hosted discussions between Emory law faculty and leaders of the region's capital defense community, said Hunter. One outcome of the talks was a July 24 conference held at The Carter Center titled, "Capital Punishment 25 Years After Furman v. Georgia," attended by nearly 200 legal experts and scholars. The Carter Center also established a course for Emory law students in January that addresses real-life international human rights cases. Students gain practical experience in applying related laws to current cases of human rights abuse.

The addition of a course such as Bright's to Emory's law curriculum is part of an ongoing effort to give students concrete and useful experience in some of the toughest problems facing individual attorneys and the legal profession, said Hunter. Bright endorses this approach, pointing out that "there is a tremendous amount of social engineering that goes on in law school. We take the brightest and best of students and turn them all into corporate lawyers."

"We need to re-examine the failure to provide lawyers for those most in need," said Bright, an intense and energetic figure both in the courtroom and the classroom. He makes sure students learn about the nightmare of inadequate legal counsel in capital cases: about the lawyer who slept during his client's trial; about the lawyer who was so drunk the judge had to stop the trial for a day. "Students would be offended by this kind of behavior in any case, but in a death penalty case, it's especially horrifying," he said.

Bright was quick to add that the course is "not about whether the death penalty is a good idea or bad idea. It's about the quality and fairness of counsel poor people have in these cases." In the case of the lawyer who slept, the defendant was poor and mentally retarded; the defendant whose lawyer got drunk was a poor woman who had killed her husband after years of abuse. In both cases, the defendants had court-appointed attorneys who received little or no pay and "lacked the skills, resources and commitment to handle such serious matters," said Bright. In these instances, the defendants got what the system paid for.

"If legal services are priced out of people's ability to pay, what does that say for our system of justice?" said Bright, who attempts to dissect and examine each facet of the issue.

"A lot of students come to law school very idealistic and committed to helping people," said Bright. "This kind of law school experience may help them stay the course."

-Elaine Justice

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